by andrea atherley | grades 5–6 teacher
We are living in a period of radical change. As a parent, I often wonder how to prepare my children for success in a world where they need to critically evaluate new developments based on trial and error to create innovative solutions. These are the very same skills required to solve challenging math problems.
Developing a ‘tool box’ of knowledge to draw from is integral to problem solving and allows students to build confidence around their successes. But if a student believes they can fail, they will. Parents must be careful not to plant the seed of doubt in a child’s mind (in addition to their own) as kids are sensitive to this.
WHAT MAKES A GOOD PROBLEM SOLVER
As a Spirit of Math Teacher, I have observed hard-working and talented students who have received national honours for their problem- solving abilities. Not only do they know their number facts well (multiplication up to 9 x 9 and are fluent with addition), they often have friends/family who are adept problem solvers.
OBSERVATIONS: PROBLEM SOLVING IN THE CLASSROOM
Students who are excellent at working through difficult problems all seem to share striking similarities in their problem-solving approach:
• They take their time reading the problem (sometimes several minutes), ask questions, and think it over before doing any calculations
• All start by writing down vital information (two or three numbers/symbols)
• Written material is neat and well organized (true even for students with poor handwriting)
• All make mistakes; usually calculation errors or perhaps an unnecessarily cumbersome solution
• Students who made calculation errors caught and corrected most of them while still working through the problem
When asked what they do when really stuck on a question, they all state:
• Take a deep breath and check the question again: “Am I doing it right? Did I copy the numbers correctly?”
• Think back or check notes for previous, similar questions
• Ask friends, parents, or teacher for help
With these tenets of honesty, patience and willingness to seek help, any student can become an expert problem-solver.